ice storm
DTE Energy “has to operate better” than it did after an ice storm last month, Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer for DTE, told Michigan lawmakers on Wednesday. “We own that.” (Bridge photo by David Zeman)

LANSING — Elouise Garley says she never imagined she’d have to use lanterns to light her home after leaving war-torn Liberia more than 20 years ago for Detroit.

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

“As a teenager, we used (lanterns) as electricity, and I got traumatized by darkness. Whenever it’s dark, I think of the days of my dark teenage years in Liberia,” Garley told a House committee on Wednesday.

“When I came to the USA in 2000, I never thought I would face a developing country crisis: frequent power outages.” 

And yet, last August, Garley said she had to rely on lanterns again to light her home following a DTE Energy outage. She used them again in February after she lost power for four days because of a historic ice storm. 

Garley was among the DTE and Consumers Energy customers who testified  before the House Energy, Communications, and Technology Committee on Wednesday about frequent and long-lasting power outages

Over 450,000 Michigan residents lost electricity, some for nearly a week following an ice storm on Feb. 22. The storm caused school closings, canceled flights and slippery road conditions throughout the Upper Midwest. 

The same storm caused far fewer outages in neighboring states even though they received a similar amount of ice or even more snow.

State lawmakers are scrutinizing the outages, proposed rate increases and continual profits for the utilities. Several also expressed outrage that Michigan policy only allows up to $35 per day in compensation for those who lose power.

Representatives from Consumers Energy, which has 1.8 million electric customers in Michigan, and DTE, which has 2.3 million, testified at the hearing.

“The system has to operate better, and we own that,” Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer for DTE, told lawmakers.

“I understand the failure that we had with this ice storm. There is no amount of engineering that I can put on an electrical system that’s going to keep our electrical system from failing with three quarters of an inch of ice, but we must do better with the wicked weather we have coming at us.” 

Consumers Energy was equally apologetic. 

“We recognize the impact that this has had on our customers, we appreciate their patience as they have gone forward, we are truly sorry, and we will learn from this as we go forward,” said Chris Laird, vice president for electric operations for the company.

DTE’s Lauer said the problem isn’t the frequency of the outages but the duration, which can be alleviated with more investment into improving the grids, tree-trimming near lines and other upgrades.

“As we look at the overall weather patterns that have come into the state of Michigan, all I can do is continue to rebuild the electric grid as fast as I can against these weather patterns,” Lauer said

The hearing came the same week Bridge Michigan reported that DTE planned a series of cuts in recent months to ensure it ended the year with a $1.2 billion profit. 

Under questioning from Democrats, Lauer said the cuts haven’t yet been implemented and won’t “affect the reliability for our customers.” 

The cuts involve a summer program that employs students to survey underground transformers and grass mowing at substations. 

DTE is planning $45 billion in upgrades over the next 10 years, but has asked state regulators to increase rates to customers by 9.5 percent to 14.5 percent.

“We believe if we do the right thing for our employees they’re going to do the right things for our customers,” Lauer said. “We have to offer reliable service in order to get the outcome from our investors that we expect.”  

Michigan residents pay the 11th highest rate for electricity in the U.S, according to the website Statisa.

Both utility companies offered credits of up to $35 for residents who had been out of power for more than four days, but lawmakers and customers say that’s not nearly enough.

The city of Highland Park lost power to fire stations, city hall and senior centers after the storm, Mayor Glenda McDonald told the committee.

She called the $35 per day compensation a “disgrace.”

“I cannot run a city, however small it is, without power,” McDonald said. 

During a three-year-long process, the Michigan Public Service Commission came up with a new set of compensation rules, which will be implemented next week, requiring both utility companies to automatically pay $35 in addition to paying $35 for each day a customer is out of service for more than five days. 

“I realize that it’s not enough to fully compensate customers, but we do think it’s a meaningful step in the right direction compared to the existing rules,” said Commissioner Katherine Peretick, during her testimony 

State Rep. Helena Scott, D-Detroit, chairs the energy committee that hosted the hearing and expressed concerns that outages disproportionately impact lower-income customers in southeast Michigan.

“It’s important that they have reliable, consistent service even in the weather conditions that we have. We live in Michigan, (so) winter storms will happen.”   

Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that the Michigan Public Service Commission will host town halls in Dearborn and Jackson on March 20 for residents to voice their concerns about recent power outages. 

The first town hall is 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at American 1 Credit Union Event Center 128 W. Ganson, Jackson. The second is 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Fordson High School Auditorium 13800 Ford Rd. in Dearborn.

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  1. It is really an outrage that the city of Detroit city council allows the mayor of Detroit to keep giving tax breaks to all his associates and Friends businesses, DTE does not pay any of there bills, the residents of Michigan we pay the usage the outer usage we pay their taxes each month residents pay over $300 to DTE just for surcharges and fees next we pay for the gas and electricity which is always over 300 in the winter months and sometimes summer months as well’ residents are charged over 3 to 4 hundred dollars a month just to be serviced by DTE if there is a shut-off DTE has nothing in place to help or assist residents DTE only tell the residents where to go get money from to pay them but, they have nothing in place to help assist residents from there company ,they do suggest payment arrangements that are extremely too high, as a customer they want to charge us 9.5 increase in our bill what or they responsible for DTE should have enough money to fix their own power grid without putting everything off on the customers, resident pay to cut trees over there lines down DTE put meters up in front of residents homes the cheapest old outdated meters back up ” they had no right” without asking home owners “big ugly gas meters are bringing down property value and it should be a lawsuit against DTE and the city of Detroit for allowing them to put horrible eyes sores meters in front of people homes . March 9th up until now you can not call DTE without a wait time of over 2hours to speak with a agent Detroit residents should have better service then that as much money residents are charged per month now they want residents to pay for a power grid,” billions of dollars that they receive each month from residents? Paying for electricity in the city of Detroit is like paying for a mortgage bill each month, This is not fair we pay the highs electricity bill in the world Detroit is gives tax breaks to anyone that comes in the city of Detroit that’s friends with the mayor and want to build here, The mayor favorite line is” oh it’s going to help the residents of Detroit , we’re going to be here for the low income and make sure they have a place to stay,” and a blind man can see none of this has been true ,what’s wrong with the city council that they can’t see it? all of his friends and associates gets big tax breaks and pushing it off on the middle class people and the lower income people if anyone builds in this city gets a tax break and the residents of Detroit gets their home taken because they can’t pay their taxes. DTE should not be allowed to charge the residents of Detroit to build a power grid they should have enough money to do it themselves we cannot fund DTE any longer they have to be responsible for something. residents should not have to keep taking care of billionaires and they do nothing, the mayor of Detroit has misled the city so many times in front of everybody the city council don’t see it ,you cannot be that blind not to see what’s going. apartment building to purchase that’s supposed to be for low income people is now $450,000 just to buy a one bed room there’s nothing being rented for low income it’s nothing but a bunch of misleading people,what happened to the training center that he had in place to be built on livernois it’s a empty lot still sitting there with trucks lined up everywhere like it’s a storage for trucks what happened to the apartment complex for low income
    the owner did fix up the apartment complex with the Detroit renew money but, it’s not for low income why did the city council allow this to happen to use the resident money to help with the apartment complex for someone else to make millions the fund’s was supposed to be for residents homeowners Detroit has not asked where is the money for Detroit renew where are the funds that supposed to been used for fixing up residents homes residents are being denied
    those funds, Apartment complex at purchase is $450,000 and there’s not one there for low income The mayor does nothing that he says he’s going to do and nobody checks behind him.

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